She looked at me through soya sauce-stained spectacles the size of dinner plates and frowned. A shrill word resembling “what?” came out of her buck-toothed mouth. I sat back and contemplated the scenario. Here I was in my own town, namely the Cape one, and some Chinese import was unable to understand my uncomplicated request for two wine-glasses, a bottle of water and 36 oysters – shucked.
Royo Kloof Asian Kitchen in the hub of Kloof Street is Chinese. Busloads of camera-bearing, Camel-smoking and ying-tong-speaking individuals cause hourly traffic snarl-ups as they are disgorged onto the street to make their way to an eating appointment at Royo. Inside, menus are scribbled in some sort of Chinese script with an English version available if you ask nicely. The staff are, apparently, fresh from the boat or just out of the Xiamen sweat-shop, their attempts at English making that spoken by Kurt Darren sound regal, literal and Oxford.
I am all for cultural integration and foreign economic activity, but is it asking too much to be served by someone who does not sound like she is attempting the final scene of Madame Butterfly in original dialect?
Seeing my inability to answer the waitress in fluent Mandarin, the maitre‘d – or whatever they call them out East – sent over a replacement who could at least pronounce “yes?” without making it sound like a summons to be executed on Tiananman Square.
“Yes?” she said through those coy almond-eyed flutters as I repeated the order, which she apparently understood. Except for the “two wine glasses” as instead of stemware, two bottles of white house wine were delivered to the table with a satisfied smile from her side.
My guest, Floracius Dillettant from the quaint Burgundian town of Macon, sighed, got up from the table and returned with two claret tulips so thick and dense you could slit a dragon’s wrists with them.
The oysters, however, arrived as oysters. Beautiful fat, green, slimy things so fresh we relished watching them squirm when the acid of the lemon juice hit them.
The wine I had brought along for the occasion was a Vergelegen Chardonnay 2009, which Floracius pronounced to be “quite good for a New World Chardonnay”, as Burgundians tend to do. I thought the wine a stunner with loads of grilled nuts, unsalted Brittany butter and wild honey-suckle, all underscored with a brisk, tight blitz of mineral verve. (921/1000)
We were just finishing the oysters and Floracius was opening the wine he had brought along, a Chateau Palmer 2003, when a huge and unsolicited steaming bowl of sliced beef in an aromatic broth was placed before us. I looked at the waitress with just about the same sort of confused expression she would give me upon my venturing one of those exhaustively complicated requests, such as “two more napkins please”.
Our eyes were directed to a group of six stern-looking men in dark suits who were sitting in a private dining area. Bottles of wine were before them and they had procured some decent-looking glasses, far removed from the sawn-off Coke bottles we Western plebs had been given.
These guys, strangers, had sent us some real Chinese food. “The liking your wine,” the waitress sang. “Say this fooding drinking good with your wining.”
I hesitated. Despite being a sometime blogger, I am averse to freebies of any kind. Plus the six Chinese guys in black looked as if they could be members of a blood-thirsty Triad, the executive board of an infant-flogging sweat-shop in Hangzhou or a set of characters out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Friendly they appeared not, and weren’t looking in our direction, either. A pile of wine bottles was spread out on the table before them, and the sparkling large glasses were filled with red liquid.
We ate the beef, which was spicy but good, and finished the Palmer, which was red, regally austere and beguiling.
After a few Cognacs – never a shortage of this stuff in traditional Chinese joint – Floracius and I plucked up the courage to approach the table of suits to thank them for their culinary recommendation.
The apparent leader of the group eyed us with a look of suspicion that made me seriously wonder whether the bowl of food had not been sent over as a sort of Last Supper in Chinese kind-of-thing. Water torture or death by chopstick-impalement seemed a reality.
Instead the leader gruffly barked some orders to the one waitress able to speak nursery school English and she rushed over with two chairs in a state of frenetic terror. And so Floracius and I found ourselves with a group of Chinese strangers and a pile of good South African wine. Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon. Meerlust Rubicon. Eben Sadie Columella. Vilafonté C and M. Kanonkop Pinotage. Three glasses were set before us and splashed with the good stuff.
We all sniffed and sipped and enthused about the wine to one another, despite the Frenchmen and I not being able to understand one word they were saying about the wine. So the two of us joined in in English, incomprehensible to them but there we were ranting about soft fruit, power, wood and Bordeaux-style. We were met with enthusiastic replies in Mandarin, an offer to clink glasses, the odd pat on the shoulder, piles of business cards and pictures of their smiling wives and children
Of course, being pissed to the gills lubricated the potential cultural friction. But even with a blast of a hang-over I remembered to in future trust a Chinaman bearing gifts.